Minor Tales: A Pack of Crackers and a Water Bottle

(via angela n.)

It was the summer of 1992. No school and all fun. Kids were lining up at the theater to see Batman Returns. Pauly Shore was making weird noises and “wheezing the juice” in Encino Man. Tom Hanks and Gina Davis were bringing the Rockford Peaches’ story to the big screen. And Madonna was swinging a baseball bat in that same film while singing about how this “used to be her playground” and how “this used to be her childhood dream.” In Canada, though, the real summer blockbuster wasn’t Batman Returns, or Encino Man, or A League Of Their Own. It was the Toronto Blue Jays, who were about to make baseball history. And I can remember that summer like it was yesterday.

My friends and I would spend hours playing baseball at Roehampton Park, which was located in the center of our apartment-lined subdivision in St. Catharines. We would wake up early in the morning, meet at the diamond, play ball until lunch, and then go back out there and play for a few more hours. Every now and then we would escape the summer heat and go to the air-conditioned arcade in the Lincoln Mall, which was behind the apartment buildings where we all lived. That was where Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat were, and we fed our hard-earned newspaper route money into the both of them. Quarter after quarter.

I wasn’t really that good at baseball, but that didn’t stop me from imagining what life would be like if I were a big leaguer – a superstar like Roberto Alomar. It was fun to dream about those kinds of things as a 12-year-old boy. I was a pretty good hockey goaltender back then. And I had major dreams of playing for the Toronto Maple Leafs. I saw myself standing in the crease at Maple Leaf Gardens with thousands of fans looking down at me cheering me on as I made save after save.

I was going to be the savior of the franchise, me, Ryan Di Francesco, the goalie who would steal the Stanley Cup back to Toronto. None of that happened, of course. And the Maple Leafs haven’t won Lord Stanley since 1967. No Leaf goaltender has stolen that silver cup, but the Cat and Cujo came close. I dreamed that I would. That used to be my childhood dream.

Now, I write about baseball. I teach English, too. My name is not in neon lights, but I cover the minor leagues and follow the players and their fluorescent dreams, which they hope will be lit up by little bulbs on a scoreboard in a big stadium in America. This past season, Bryan Baker, a minor league pitcher in the Blue Jays’ organization, came one step closer to making his dream come true.

***

As a young child, Bryan Baker would sit in his Fort Walton middle school classroom and stare out of the window at the Florida sky and daydream about the big leagues. He imagined himself pitching on an old dirt hill in some minor league stadium in America. He envisioned the ball leaving his hand soaring past wooden bats. He thought about being drafted and what life would be like on the road. He imagined traveling around minor league America until he got to set foot in a major league world. He imagined himself walking into the skip’s office and being told he was getting the call to the show. He imagined the conversation from one skip to the next as he worked his way up the system like something we have all seen in the movies before. He imagined it all.

But the real world isn’t so magical, and there is no glossy film, no well-thought-out script, or an atmospheric setting set to a score. In the real world, there is Shake Shack and then a pack of crackers and a water bottle.

***

In July, Bryan Baker was playing for the New Hampshire Fisher Cats, which is the Toronto Blue Jays’ Double-A affiliate. I remember watching this under-the-radar pitcher throw flames out of the ‘pen. I had seen him spin the baseball and miss Eastern League bats all spring. I knew it was only a matter of time before he would get the call to Triple-A. His stuff was too good for Double-A. And then, of course, his big day came.

Baker and the ‘Cats were on the road in Hartford, Connecticut, playing a four-game series against the Yard Goats at Dunkin’ Donuts Park. On the final day, the team had to check out of the hotel at 11 a.m. Since the game wasn’t until 5 p.m., Baker and his teammates had some time to kill before they had to be at the field, so they decided to take the bus to a nearby plaza to grab some lunch. Life on the minor league road.

They went to Shake Shack to treat themselves to some true American cuisine. There is nothing better than burgers and baseball, nothing more American, too. As soon as Baker had ordered his food, his manager, Mike Mordecai, came into the restaurant. A hungry Baker, who watched his burger being prepped on the Shake Shack assembly line, had no idea what was about to happen next.

Mordecai walked right up to Baker and showed him a text on his phone, which said he was being promoted to the Buffalo Bisons. The text went on to read that the Bisons were playing in Pawtucket, which is in Rhode Island, and their game was starting at 1 p.m. that day. Baker, standing in a Shake Shack in Hartford, Connecticut, learned the Bisons’ bullpen was running on empty, and they needed Baker to get there during the game and pitch. It was noon.

Pawtucket was an hour-and-a-half drive from Hartford. No reason to worry, but no time to waste. Baker still had to get his gear from the field and his luggage off the bus. In a hurry, he left Shake Shack, got his stuff, and ordered an Uber to the field. The Uber was there within minutes, and he was on his way to Dunkin’ Donuts Park to pick up his equipment. The team trainer said he would send him the details for another Uber that would be picking him up at the field and taking him to Pawtucket. Perfect.

Baseball, You Make It Hard to Love You
Again, a scandal puts fans on the defensive about their game.

While Baker was in the Uber heading to the park, he had a moment to think back to that time when he was just a 12-year-old boy who would stare out his classroom window into the blue Florida sky and dream big baseball dreams. He remembered that little boy who used to imagine being a professional baseball player. And there he was living out that dream.

He stared out that Uber window, the Hartford streets passing him by, and reflected. He thought about how he was one step closer to the majors. He thought about how he was in Hartford and needed to get to Pawtucket to pitch. He also thought about how hungry he was. Thought after thought. He thought about how he had no time to think. Rush. Baker got to the park, ran out of the Uber and into the clubhouse to get his gear, and then he waited for an Uber to take him to Pawtucket to pitch in a game that was going to start in less than an hour.

***

Fifteen minutes later.

The first Uber showed up to the field, and Baker loaded up his stuff into the car. He got in and was ready to hit the asphalt to Rhode Island. He was ready to take the I-84 East that carved its way through Mansfield, Montville, and Cranston and into Pawtucket. But the Uber driver realized how far the trip was and said he could not take him because he had been working all morning and wasn’t up for the trip. His car wasn’t going to carve into any of that side of America on that day.

Baker was 0 for 1. The team trainer called two more rides to take him, and they both declined. Baker was now 0 for 3. Three quick strikes on three Uber knucklers and no time to spare. It was now 1 p.m. The game, which Baker “needed” to be at in order to pitch in, already had started. And he was miles away.

Finally, he found a driver willing to cross state lines, so he hit the road to Pawtucket around 1:15. About five minutes into the ride, though, Baker realized that during all that rushing around, he had left his burger on the bus. He dug around in his bag and found the “lunch of champions,” which was a pack of crackers and a water bottle, but he dreamed of that burger during every dry, salty bite. He thought about the melted cheese, the grilled beef, and the fries. He bit into the crackers. None of it was high performance, but he was living his dream.

90 minutes later.

Baker, who spent the entire drive nervously checking the game updates on the MiLB app while eating crackers, finally had made it to Pawtucket. He arrived at McCoy Stadium in the sixth inning. Once he got into the locker room, he scrambled around to find an extra jersey and hat. He laced up his cleats and hurried to the dugout.

Bobby Meacham, the manager of the Bisons, shook his hand and introduced himself and asked Baker if he was good to throw in the ninth inning. Baker said, yes, of course. Meacham nodded and told him to head on down to the bullpen and do whatever he had to do to get ready. At this point in the game, it was the bottom of the seventh. The game was tied.

***

Baker sat in the bullpen looking out onto the field, and as he watched, his new team score a run to go ahead in the eighth inning. Shortly thereafter, the phone rang. That’s when Baker got the call. Meacham wanted the new kid from the ‘Cats to close the game out in the bottom of the ninth. Baker was ready.

From checking out of his hotel in Hartford to going to Shake Shack to rushing around Dunkin Donuts Park to finding an Uber driver to take the I-84 East to Rhode Island to running in the concourse at McCoy Stadium to introducing himself to his new manager to sprinting to the bullpen to running to the mound in the ninth inning. It was happening.

After the blur of warming up, as he worked his arm and mind into the moment, it was time to pitch. Focus. He looked around at the stadium, mind racing, dizzy. He finally realized there were runners on first and third base with their cleanup hitter setting foot in the box. It came down to this. Baker on the mound for the save. His Shake Shack burger somewhere in Hartford. His amygdala reacting to the threat in the batter’s box. His hypothalamus releasing adrenaline.

Baker set and delivered. Strike. He took a deep breath, wiped the tip of his cap, looked 60-feet-and-six-inches and got the sign. Another strike. Baker took a deep breath and thought about his next pitch. He wasn’t sure what to throw. The catcher called for a fastball up, and Baker nodded. With his heart beating blood into his veins, his pulse racing, his adrenal cortex releasing cortisol for alertness, he managed to wind up and hurl the high heat and get the strikeout to end the game. Perfect.

A mixture of emotions and epinephrine came over him like he had never experienced before. And he thought, while his new teammates congratulated him on the mound, this hectic day was finally over…until he was told he had to sing karaoke right after the game. A player was chosen to sing a song of their choosing in front of the team in the locker room after each win, and after this game, it was, of course, going to be him.

After a terrible but spirited performance of “Your Man” by Josh Turner, Baker found out the Bisons had a seven-hour bus ride back to Buffalo after the game. It was the cherry on top of the Shake Shack shake for one the best and craziest days of his life.

He finally had some time to reflect on the day’s happenings. He thought about his reality, having the rare opportunity to live out his dream. He thought about that Shake Shack burger back in Hartford, how reality had left him with a pack of crackers and a water bottle. And how that was all he needed.


Ryan is a lover of birds and all things minor. He writes for Blue Jays Nation dot com.
newest oldest most voted
Jim
Member
Member
Jim

Excellent, Ryan.

Steve HOLMLUND
Member
Member
Steve HOLMLUND

Very well-written, Ryan… from one English teacher to another. Heart-warming tale of success on an MiLB scale. Looking forward to reading about Bryan Baker on the Jays in the future!

tmclean34
Member
Member
tmclean34

Was it a mushroom burger like in the picture or was it a beef burger? The world needs to know.

Triteon
Member
Triteon

Awesome story and article!